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Active Radio: Pacifica’s Brash Experiment

Jeff Land
Copyright Date: 1999
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    Active Radio
    Book Description:

    In April 1949, KPFA in Berkeley, California, went on the air. From the beginning, the station broadcast an utterly new combination of political commentary and cultural discussion, dedicated to creative expression and dissent. In this fascinating account, Jeff Land tells the heroic story of the Pacifica radio network and the practical model it pioneered for liberatory alternatives to commercial mass media.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8918-7
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Preface
    (pp. IX-XII)
    (pp. XIII-XIV)
    (pp. 1-10)

    Active Radiobegins with the early history of broadcasting in the United States, outlining the circumstances in which a small, powerful group of corporations came to control the vast majority of “our” radio channels. How did commercial stations succeed in convincing both the government and early listeners that they, not the educational, religious, and civic broadcasters, best served “the public interest”? During the 1920s, pioneering noncommercial broadcasters faced immense difficulty keeping their bearings as the federal government via its newly formed Federal Radio Commission (1927) transferred nearly all broadcasting licenses to commercial stations.

    Between 1920 and 1934, a contest over...

  6. 1. The Rise of Corporate Broadcasting
    (pp. 11-26)

    As the radiola craze swept the nation in the roaring twenties, corporate and educational broadcasters struggled to chart the destiny of the new medium. Both groups looked to Congress to regulate the distribution of licenses and keep some order in the chaos of rapid expansion. Between 1927 and 1934, the government and the emerging “mass media” industry, led by the newly formed National Broadcasting Company (formed in 1926), jointly worked to establish the principle that the nation’s commercial stations best served the “public interest.” With the federal government’s redistribution of more than one hundred licenses from church, university, and civic...

  7. 2. Lew Hill’s Passion and the Origins of Pacifica
    (pp. 27-38)

    The ideal of a world without war led to Lewis Hill’s involvement in the movement for revolutionary nonviolence during and after World War II, and subsequently to his founding of Pacifica. Long associated with religious conviction and individual witness, pacifist ideology and strategy underwent a dramatic transformation in the twentieth century. The unfathomable carnage of World War I and the luminous example of Mahatma Gandhi combined to forge a more politicized and oppositional form of struggle—“radical pacifism”—based on principles of active nonviolent resistance to war and to the social circumstances that engendered violence. Hill and other founders of...

  8. 3. Listener-Sponsored Radicalism on KPFA
    (pp. 39-62)

    Pacifica was not the first manifestly political radio venture. In the mid-1920s, efforts to establish a labor-based station in Chicago bore fruit for a short while. Edward Nockels, secretary of the Chicago Federation of Labor, used organized labor’s contacts in Washington, D.C., to receive a license for station WCFL, which he imagined would be the flagship of a “listener-supported, labor broadcasting network [which would] provide a ‘working class perspective’ on public affairs.” In the late 1920s, Nockels consistently argued before Congress and the Federal Radio Commission against the hegemony of corporate media:

    Is it in the public interest, convenience, and...

  9. 4. The Development of the Pacifica Network
    (pp. 63-90)

    A 1948 prospectus seeking donations for KPFA promised donors that “after an initial period of stabilization,” commercial revenue would support the station. More than that, “its income will eventually create a surplus providing for its own expansion or the establishment of other stations.”¹ Although these business plans did not come to pass precisely in the manner imagined, airing Pacifica’s signals and ideals beyond the Bay Area remained dear to the hearts of many in the foundation.

    The earliest goals of Pacifica had anticipated that the foundation’s enterprises would include a bookstore, a publishing house, and other media outlets.² One project,...

  10. 5. Free Speech Radio
    (pp. 91-112)

    A dynamic and radical version of the First Amendment stands at the heart of Pacifica’s practices. Pacifica fused the Anglo-American libertarian creed of dissent as the lifeblood of democracy with a romantic notion of expression as the unique utterance of the soul. With roots in Emerson and Whitman, this aesthetic attitude has in fact shaped the majority of the programs in Pacifica’s history. The experimental music, Beat poetry, and modern drama (often commissioned by the network and performed live in the studios) emphatically indicate Pacifica’s devotion to free, creative, poetic speech.

    One does not do justice to Pacifica’s overall schedule...

  11. 6. WBAI and the Explosion of Live Radio
    (pp. 113-132)

    By the early sixties, the three stations in the Pacifica network had a coherent, if eclectic, schedule: music, poetry, and drama, lectures and discussions, and a wide array of cultural and political commentary. This challenging aural environment earned the network abiding loyalty from small, dedicated audiences in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and New York. Over time, the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and the upsurge of radical protest globally had immense impact on the network, altering its soundscape and ultimately giving birth to the genre known as “community radio.”

    Abstractly, the relationship between Pacifica’s listener-sponsored broadcasting and...

  12. 7. Beloved Community
    (pp. 133-142)

    A student of broadcasting history might wonder what James Rorty, vociferous critic of early corporate media, would have thought of the crisis at WBAI. In the early 1930s, educators, civic activists, and church leaders watched in dismay as the Federal Radio Commission stripped the broadcast licenses from their stations and, under the rubric of “public interest,” gave them to commercial broadcasters (see chapter 1). In meeting after meeting organized by the National Council on Educational Radio, the noncommercial operators gathered to address this baleful situation. They consistently charged that commercialization would debase Western literary and musical heritage: “Private radio monopolies...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 143-148)

    This book has not attempted to disguise its admiration for Pacifica’s accomplishments. Neither has it narrated a triumphalist version of Pacifica’s history. Little in Pacifica’s opening the airwaves to controversy, erudition, and diversity has been simple. Lack of financial support, internal political and personal struggle, and constant surveillance by political enemies, both within the government and without, have marked Pacifica’s history. Yet in the past five decades, oppositional social movements, cultural avant-gardes, and various alternative media have come and gone while the radio network remains and continues to evolve. The fact of its persistence against many odds may be attributed...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 149-160)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 161-168)
  16. Pacifica Programs
    (pp. 169-172)
  17. Index
    (pp. 173-180)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 181-181)
  19. [illustrations]
    (pp. 182-189)